Thursday, August 13, 2009

The Greenness of Iceland

From the northern center of Iceland, the volcanic Lake Myvatn, greetings. This island in the north Atlantic, straddling the Atlantic ridge, is a country of scarce 300,000 people. It is remarkably empty, with widely separated farms, occasional villages, and one substantial city, Reykjavik, in the extreme west.

There are scarcely any trees, except where deliberately cultivated. The main crop of the land is grass, cropped by sheep, and grown for hay in carefully drained fields. All over Iceland you will see in August white "marshmallows," the huge rolls of hay that have been mowed, tossed, baled and wrapped in plastic. These squat cylinders are gradually moved from the fields to the farm buildings where they feed the sheep and cattle during the long dark winter.

And all over Iceland are the volcanoes, ready to spew out ash and lava. At the large icefield in the south-east, the eruptions can unleash devastating floods, as the heat of an eruption melts ice deep in the glaciers, and suddenly appears in a vast river at the snout of a glacier, tearing away bridges, roads, and embankments. At Skaftafell there is a description of the 1996 eruption in the Vatnajokull icefield that released a flood equal to the flow of the Amazon. The twisted I-beams of a collapsed bridge section are displayed to demonstrate the power of the river of water and ice blocks that burst out from beneath the 10 mile wide Skeidararjokull glacier about ten days after the eruption.

In this empty land summer tourists ride, drive, bicycle and walk along Route 1, the road that circles the island. The road winds along lonely fjords, over barren highlands, and across vast glacial outwash sands. In summer it is light all the time; in winter it is dark. Right now, in mid August, it gets darkish at about 10:30 and lightens up at about 4:30. But in midsummer it is light all the time, and in midwinter it is almost always dark. The northernmost tip of Iceland lies just below the Arctic Circle.

We are traveling west today, from Lake Myvatn to Varmahlid. Then it is on to the western tip and south back to Reykjavik and home to Seattle.

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